United in Diversity: Overcoming Parochialism Through Political Science

15 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2013

See all articles by Ruxandra Paul

Ruxandra Paul

Harvard University - Department of Government

Date Written: February 7, 2013


In its earliest iterations, General Education served not only as an intellectual foundation, but also as a normative, homogenizing tool that instilled the “right values” to form good citizens among elites. It taught students the “adequate philosophy of life” to challenge intellectual relativism. While maintaining its holistic focus on “good citizen” creation, Gen Ed has undergone repeated redefinitions to match changing societal priorities and pedagogic paradigms. This paper analyzes the evolution of thinking about General Education at Harvard University, as it emerges from university documents, reports, books, websites and in-depth interviews with participants in the decision-making process. Political science played a crucial role in the successive recalibrations of the Core/Gen Ed curriculum, as the goal of forming responsible citizens acquired a global, cosmopolitan dimension. The pressures of globalization and an increasingly diverse student body reinforced and multiplied the functions of political science in the Gen Ed program.

This essay compares the General Education in a Free Society 1945-1950 Report: The Good Man and the Citizen with the Core Curriculum of the 1980s (Guide to the Core Program and Phyllis Keller’s 1982 Getting at the Core: Curricular reform at Harvard), and the Report of the Task Force on General Education of 2007. It reveals three phases corresponding to three distinct paradigms, each emerging roughly three decades after its predecessor. The first reflects the traditional focus on forming “the good man,” “the good citizen,” and “the useful man” by instilling the “right” set of values. The second produced the Core Curriculum, which distanced itself from fixed knowledge to expose students to different “areas and approaches to knowledge.” The third, contemporary phase emphasizes “overcoming parochialism” as a guiding principle and diversity as a resource. This paradigm wants to unsettle, disorient, and defamiliarize students, so they can reorient themselves. It explicitly connects students’ liberal education to life beyond college. Differences aside, Gen Ed visions share a key dimension: their desire that the student become a zoon politikon, an engaged member of society, equipped with critical spirit, ethical awareness, and the confidence to face the challenges of the “real world.”

In this context, the paper discusses the role of political science in the Gen Ed curriculum, pointing out how the discipline has capitalized on the diversity of students and faculty as a resource. The paper starts a conversation about the growing importance of political science in Gen Ed by using the case of the Government Department at Harvard.

Keywords: General Education, Political Science, curriculum reform

Suggested Citation

Paul, Ruxandra, United in Diversity: Overcoming Parochialism Through Political Science (February 7, 2013). APSA 2013 Teaching and Learning Conference, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2213374 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2213374

Ruxandra Paul (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Department of Government ( email )

1737 Cambridge St
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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